The Tawny Owl
 Morris's British Birds 1891
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Tawny Owl
Image Title: Tawny Owl
Description: Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

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Ulula stridula, SELBY. Strix stridula, LINNAEUS. FLEMING. Strix aluco, LATHAM. Syrnium aluco, JENYNS. TEMMINCK.
Ulula. Ululare—To howl like a wolf. Stridula—Harsh—grating—creaking.

Here is another victim of persecution! Were it not for the friendly shelter of the night, and the fostering care of some few friends, where is the Owl that would be able to maintain a place among the 'Feathered Tribes' of England? Their 'passports' are invariably sent to them in the form of cartridge paper, a double-barrelled gun furnishes a ready 'missive;' their 'conge' is given with a general 'discharge,' and the unoffending, harmless, nay, useful bird, is ordered for ever to 'quit.' His family are not permitted to hold their own, but are themselves outlawed and proscribed; their dwelling is confiscated, a 'clearance' is effected; and if there are a wife and children, 'alack for woe!' they are carried into captivity. You have my pity, at all events, 'Bonny Brown Owl;' and, believe me, I would that the expression of it might do you a kindness; but I have sad misgivings —you are a marked bird—they have given you a bad name, and the proverb tells you the fatal consequence.
The Tawny Owl, or Brown Owl, is known in many countries of Europe—Lapland, Norway, and Scandinavia generally, Russia, the Crimea, Spain, Turkey, Portugal, Italy, and others; as also in Asia Minor, Palestine, Greece, Roumelia, and Japan. So too in Africa, in Algeria and Tetuan. One is mentioned by Bishop Stanley as having alighted on the main-top-gallant yard of a ship he was on board of in the Mediterranean, at a distance of eighty miles from land. It is a common species in England, but is more rare in Scotland, especially in the northern parts, more or less so from the Border to Rosshire and the Orkney Islands, as Islay and Mull; also in the Hebrides; two have been met with in the Queen's County, in Ireland. In Yorkshire near Barnsley, Huddersfield, and Halifax, the 'Manufacturing Districts,' it is but rarely seen, but in other parts of the country not unfrequently, at,least such was once the case.
Wooded districts are its resort, and from these it only issues, voluntarily, at night, which, as with our antipodes, is its day. In the winter, when the trees ordinarily no longer afford it a covert, it secretes itself in old buildings, or the hollows of trees, or in evergreens, such as firs and holly, and in ivy.
If disturbed during the day-time, and frightened from its retreat, it flies about in a bewildered manner, the light doubtless being unnatural and uncongenial to it. It may easily, in this state, be overtaken and knocked down with sticks and stones. One was shot in the middle of Romney Marsh near noon of day in 1860. The twilight of morning and evening is the time to see it enjoying its fitful flight.
The following anecdote of a bird of this species is related by Mr. Couch, in his 'Illustrations of Instinct:'—'A Brown Owl had long been in the occupation of a convenient hole in a hollow tree; and in it for several years had rejoiced over its progeny, with hope of the pleasure to be enjoyed in excursions of hunting in their company: but, through the persecutions of some persons on the farm, who had watched the bird's proceedings, this hope had been repeatedly disappointed by the plunder of the nest at the time when the young ones were ready for flight. On the last occasion, an individual was ascending their retreat to repeat the robbery, when the parent bird, aware of the danger, grasped her only young one in her claws, and bore it away, and never more was the nest placed in the same situation.' These birds are easily tamed, and become quite domestic. 'They are at first,' says Montagu, 'very shy, but soon become tame if fed by hand. If put out of doors within hearing of the parent birds, they retain their native shyness, as the old ones visit them at night, and supply them with ample provision,' Even if taken in the mature- state they may be tamed without difficulty. They have never been known to drink. So I wrote in my first edition of this work, but since writing it Mrs. Gwilt, of Hereford Square, South Kensington, has written of a tame one she has:—'There is a large cage for him with a zinc bath, which about once in ten days he enters in the morning on a dry day, and on those days never goes to sleep as on others. When drinking he as it seems 'scoops' up the water about three times and seems to enjoy it.' Also, Mr. M. C. Cooke informs me that he has known a tame one which used to drink repeatedly, as well as to wash itself, holding up its head after each draught, as a fowl does. The following curious account has been furnished to me by Mr. Chaffey, of Doddington, Kent:—'My old Owl, a brown one, I had in my possession twenty-six years. When she was about sixteen years old, she laid two eggs, and sat upon them some time before I discovered it; as soon as I did I took them away, and replaced them with two bantam's eggs, upon which she sat about a fortnight, and then forsook them. Last year she again laid two eggs, one of them only having a hard shell; she sat upon the one egg for about a fortnight, when I removed it and found it addled. I then took it away, and procured a hen's egg which had been sat upon about the same time, and which in due time she hatched. Never in my life did I see any bird half so tender and careful of their young as she was.
For the first four days she hardly let it have time to feed, taking it by the neck out of my hand, and running with it into the dark corner where it was hatched. After a short time it would eat as freely as the old one. When the chicken was about three months old, the poor old Owl choked herself by swallowing part of a fowl which I had given her for her supper. I had turned the male Owl out as the chicken was hatched. He used to come every evening to the place and remain there for hours, till the death of the other bird, after which I saw or heard nothing more of him. The chicken grew up a very fine bird.'
The flight of the Brown Owl is rather heavy and slow, particularly at its first entering on the wing.
The food of this species consists of small leverets, young rabbits, moles, rats, shrews, mice, and other of the least quadrupeds, the latter much the most; birds of various kinds, frogs, beetles, and other insects, worms and even fish, and that in deep water as well as in shallow. In two hundred and ten pellets cast up by a Brown Owl, there were found the remains of eighteen small birds, forty-eight moles, countless numbers of beetles, two hundred and ninety-six field mice, forty-two mice, thirty-three shrews, and six rats.
Every one must love the whooping of the 'Madge Howlett.' The note resembles the syllables ' hoo-hoo-hoo,' ' to-hoot,' ' to-hoo,' ' to whit, to whoo,' aud it also occasionally utters a harsh scream. The former is as if the letter O were long-produced in a loud and clear tone, and then after short intermission repeated in a tremulous manner, and the latter has been likened by Waterton to the word 'quo-ah,' the throat is swelled the while. I may here observe, in reference to the generic name prefixed to this species, that the name of the Owl is probably a corruption of the word 'howl.' Meyer describes the note as resembling a satirical laugh.
Nidification commences in March. The nest, if it deserves the name, is formed of a few soft feathers, some straws, or a little moss, sometimes merely of the decayed wood in the hollow of the tree in which it is placed; and one has been observed so low down that a person could see into it from the ground; occasionally it is built in rocks, on the branch of a tree, and even on the ground, or in a rabbit burrow, sometimes it is said, upon the earth itself, as also in barns or the like buildings, or even in the deserted nests of other birds, such as buzzards, crows, rooks, and magpies.
The young are hatched in April: they continue to perch among the branches of trees in the neighbourhood of the nest before finally taking their leave of it, and are fed during this interval by the parent birds.
The eggs are white, and from two or three to four or five in number: the first is sat on as soon as laid, and the young are hatched in about three weeks: they are blind for some days, and their red eyelids look as if inflamed.
The ground colour of the plumage of these birds varies very much; scarcely two individuals are met with precisely similar in their markings: some are more rufous, and others more grey or brown. Male; weight, between fifteen and sixteen ounces; length, one foot one to one foot three inches; bill, pale horn-colour, much hid by bristles; cere, dull reddish yellow; iris, dark brown, nearly black, two irregular white stripes extend backwards over the eye; eyelids pink. Head, large; crown, dark brown and grey, tinged with rufous; the bristly feathers of the face are greyish white, interspersed with black near the bill; the small rounded feathers of the wreath are black in the middle, edged, spotted and barred with white and rufous; the grey prevails near the eyes, and brown near the ears; neck, dingy white, the feathers streaked with rufous brown, the shafts dusky, and zigzag lines or spots at the tips. The feathers of the nape are dark brown in the centre, edged with brownish grey, spotted with brown, and tinged with rufous; chin, brownish grey; throat and breast, dull white, the feathers streaked with rufous brown, and with zigzag lines or spots at the tips, the shafts dusky; the lines on the lower part of the latter are indistinctly crossed; back, dark brown on the centres of the feathers, edged with brownish grey, spotted with brown, and tinged with rufous.
The wings expand to the width of from two feet eight inches to three feet: they do not reach to the middle of the tail; greater and lesser wing coverts, dark brown on the middle part of the feathers, the edges brownish grey, and tinged with rufous, but more spotted with brown in waving lines, and with some white spots on the outer webs of the former near the tips, forming obscure patches; primaries, rufous yellow barred with dusky, white at the base; the fourth the longest in the wing, the fifth almost as long; underneath, they are dull white, barred with pale brown; secondaries, the same, but the bars are narrower and more distinct; tertiaries, as the back. Greater and lesser under wing coverts, dull white, barred with pale brown; tail, pale rufous grey, speckled with dark brown, and barred, but faintly, on the outer webs with the same: the two middle feathers are nearly plain, and rufous; the tip white; underneath, it is dull white, barred with pale brown; tail coverts, dark brown on the centres of the feathers, edged with brownish grey, spotted with brown, and tinged with rufous; under tail coverts, dull white barred with rufous brown, the shafts of the feathers brown; legs, almost entirely covered with yellowish white or grey feathers, spotted with brown; toes, dark yellow or dull reddish yellow and rough; claws, horn-colour, with black tips, and not very much hooked.
The female chiefly differs in size, and is less tawny, so that it was formerly thought to be a different species. Weight, nineteen ounces; length, one foot three to one foot five inches; bill, bluish black. The feathers of the face are yellowish white in front, and pale reddish brown behind, the feathers lying over the bill having black shafts. 'The ruff is yellowish red, mottled with brown above, at the middle very dark brown with whitish spots, below yellowish brown mottled with darker.' The wings expand to the width of three feet and upwards.
The young are at first covered with grey down. The young female assumes a rufous tinge, the tail is scarcely barred, and the bars on the wings are narrower than in the adult birds. The young male resembles the female for the first two years.
A variety with the parts light ash grey which are usually brown, was met with in 1848, at Pensax, near Worcester. It had previously been remarked in the nest. One, quite black.

"Up then he gets into the old ash tree To see the hissing Owlets in their hole."

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